Truth or Consequences

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life

by Sissela Bok
Pantheon Books, 326 pp., $10.95

Casuists and moral theologians have always been interested in the places where medical, legal, and ethical problems meet. But with the increased specialization of university philosophers and the overwhelming interest in formal problems, modern philosophy has not, at least until recently, made much direct contribution to the solution of the moral problems that arise in practice for politicians, lawyers, physicians, and ordinary people tangled up in the network of their necessary relations with the members of these professions. There are many signs of change, and Dr. Bok’s book, together with the periodical Philosophy and Public Affairs and the work done at the Hastings Center, is one of the most notable. It is pleasant to find a work of such analytical power devoted to a set of severely practical problems and to find it so well written. It is hard to write on such topics without falling into the jargon (and with the jargon the intellectual corruption) that makes so much writing in England on social topics messy and repellent. It is also refreshing, and uncommon, to find a contemporary philosopher who is prepared to consider as possibly usable the resources of the entire philosophical tradition. She has an appendix with samples of what philosophers have said on the topics of lying and truthtelling, and the range is from Augustine to G.J. Warnock, with Aquinas, Grotius, Kant, Sidgwick, and others coming in between.

That veracity is a virtue seems one of the most persuasive theses in morality. It may be treated as a particular showing of a more comprehensive virtue, that of justice; but there is about veracity no suspicion of the kind which has made men from time to time hesitate about some of the other traditional virtues. Courage may be puzzled over; and what counts as courage may vary from time to time and place to place; humility and chastity have sometimes been termed, pejoratively, monkish virtues, that is, not really virtues at all. That practical wisdom—prudence—is properly to be called a virtue is a disputed position in philosophy. But the habit of truthtelling, an acquired disposition to speak the truth even in situations where something else we value could be safeguarded, as we suppose at the time, by a lie, this seems quite straightforwardly a virtue and what binds together any tolerable society.

After all, truthtelling has to be the norm; if it isn’t, language, considered as nonfictive communication, stumbles and collapses. And since language may fairly enough be thought constitutive of human nature, the most evident sign of the rationality believed to set man apart from other animals, lying resembles spiritual suicide. Truthtelling seems so necessary a virtue that it has been tied to peaceableness, and the disposition to observe the Golden Rule, as a part of the comprehensive virtue of civility. Hobbes thought metaphor a dangerous trope, calculated to deceive, tolerable only as a pedagogic device to startle the mind. Novels and other fictions have often been looked upon with some suspicion as perhaps being…

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